What 'When Harry Met Sally...' was really about, according to Nora Ephron

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Image Credit: Everett Collection

In 1990, the year after When Harry Met Sally… hit theaters, Nora Ephron’s script was released as a paperback book with an 11-page introduction written by Ephron detailing how the film came about. The beauty of the Internet: You can read that intro when you “search inside this book” on Amazon. She details how director Rob Reiner told her he wanted to do a movie about two people who become friends and decide not to have sex because it would ruin the friendship, and, of course, it inevitably does. She describes in great detail the things Reiner and his producing partner Andrew Scheinman shared with her as they spent days discussing men (the way they wanted to go home as soon as sex was over, the excuses they would make up to leave). She explains how she realized Reiner — who was divorced at the time and reveling in his depression as much as Harry ultimately would — was the character she should write about. Because Harry had that “dark side,” Sally had to be light — more like Ephron (who, yes, just liked food the way she liked it). 

Ephron also reveals why the movie wasn’t the usual compromise a film becomes for a writer once it’s in the director’s hands: “[W]hat made this movie different was that Rob had a character who could say whatever he believed, and if I disagreed, I had Sally to say so for me,” she writes. Reiner believed men and wouldn’t couldn’t be friends (because a man would always want to have sex with a woman), and Ephron believed they could (because she had male friends she wasn’t having sex with). They were both right, she says. To her, the movie was never about answering that question; it was about showing how different men and women are.

“The truth is that men don’t want to be friends with women. Men know they don’t understand women, and they don’t much care. They want women as lovers, as wives, as mothers, but they’re really not interested in them as friends. They have friends. Men are their friends. And they talk to their male friends about sports, and I have no idea what else.

Women, on the other hand, are dying to be friends with men. Women know they don’t understand men, and it bothers them: they think that if only they could be friends with them, they would understand them and, what’s more (and this is their gravest mistake), it would help. Women think if they could just understand men, they could do something. Women are always trying to do something. There are entire industries based on this premise, the most obvious one being the women’s magazines… that are based completely on the notion that women can do something where men are concerned: cook a perfect steak, or wear a perfect skirt, or dab a little perfume behind the knee….”

As a woman, reading that “Men know they don’t understand women, and they don’t much care” almost feels like a “He’s just not that into you” breakthrough: It’s a notion that doesn’t change the fact that you’re being rejected on some level, but it’s comforting and freeing. The reason that guy who’s just not that into you doesn’t even seem interested in getting to know you as a person/friend is because it probably wouldn’t even occur to him. So stop wasting all that “Hey, notice me! We have this in common!” effort.

To be clear, like Ephron, I do believe men and women can be friends, so this isn’t a blanket statement saying no man wants a friendship with a woman. It’s just saying that, as with “He’s just not that into you,” if he’s not interested in making it happen, it won’t.

Agree or disagree?

Read more:
A critic’s appreciation: Nora Ephron’s words are worth a thousand pictures
Nora Ephron: 10 Scenes We Love
Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Meryl Streep, others share thoughts on Nora Ephron

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